Marissa Taffer
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  • True family emergencies, like an injured family member or a sudden car accident, require immediate attention — and usually mean having to miss work.
  • Let your boss know as soon as you know you’ll need to miss work; you may wish to discuss intermittent FMLA with your boss for a chronically ill family member.

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If you’ve ever managed people, you’ve probably heard some pretty crazy excuses for people calling out of work for a day or two — from dead grandparents (five times over?!) to sick dogs or car trouble. While you probably want to be supportive of your team members, there may have been a time where you were a bit skeptical. 

As an employee, you may be wondering when it's okay to call out for a family emergency. What constitutes an "emergency" can vary depending on your line of work and your boss. We’ve broken down some of the most common situations and when it might be okay to miss work and take care of your family members.

What qualifies as a family emergency?

This is a broad umbrella term that many types of issues can fall under. From most serious like a death in the family to emergencies that just need immediate attention, like a child having an asthma attack, getting stung by a bee or running a fever and needing to be picked up from school, the actual definition of a family emergency can vary depending on where you work and what you do. 

If you’re a medical professional, the severity of the emergency might need to be higher in order for you to leave work than if you work in an office and aren’t actively in the middle of saving a life. Here are some common examples of family emergencies.

1. A death in the family.

If someone in your immediate family passes away, you'll need to plan and attend the funeral and any related events, like shiva if your family is Jewish. You also may need additional time out of work to grieve and settle the person’s estate. If you live out of state or the funeral is a great distance away, you might also need to factor in travel time when considering how long you will be out of the office. 

2. A sick child.

If your child is sick, you'll need to pick them up from school or daycare and may have to provide care until they are better. For a more serious illness, you may also need to leave work to take them to the doctor. If you have a child with asthma, diabetes or another chronic illness, you might need to miss work more frequently due to flare-ups and routine medical appointments.  

3. A car accident.

If you or a member of your immediate family is involved in a car accident, this should be considered an emergency. Between filing paperwork and getting any injuries checked out, it could be some time before you can go back to work. If you or a member of your family is seriously injured, there may be some time spent in the hospital. If your car or another member of your family’s car is totaled, that probably also means getting a rental car, using ride-sharing or relying on public transportation to get to work for a while while the car is repaired or replaced. 

4. A sick or injured parent.

If one of your parents gets sick or injured, they might need your help getting to the doctor or hospital or coordinating their care. This process could take days, weeks or months depending on the severity of their illness or injury. A common injury in senior citizens is a broken knee or hip, which could require repair or replacement surgery. After surgery, the injured person will need rehabilitation and physical therapy, too. 

5. A sick or injured domestic partner or spouse.

If your spouse or domestic partner is sick or injured, you may need to coordinate or provide care for them. Depending on the nature of the illness or injury, it may be a day or two, or it could be something you have to work out for the long term.  

6. Damage to your home or personal property.

If your home, car or other property is damaged, you may need to leave work to secure or repair your property. This could include needing to deal with insurance adjusters and contractors and, if the damage to your property or home is severe enough, even relocating. 

7. A sick pet.

More and more pets are being considered members of the family. If your pet is sick, you may need to leave work and get them the care they need to get better. If you own a pet, chances are you’ll miss or be late for work once in a while due to some routine illnesses like vomiting or diarrhea. 

Can you leave work for a family emergency?

The short answer to this question is usually yes. Under the right circumstances, you can generally leave work to address a family emergency. This response presumes you know about the emergency and can get where you need to go to solve it. Most employers will trust that as a responsible adult, you'll use your best judgment when determining when to leave work in the case of an emergency. 

If you're leaving for emergencies frequently or your absence puts the company or another person in danger, you could technically be disciplined or even fired for leaving. Make sure to communicate with your boss and any team members who will be impacted by your leaving as soon as you possibly can. Try to provide as much information as you can. If you need to maintain confidentiality, try to consult your direct boss or someone in human resources about what you need to do and how to communicate with colleagues about it. 

How to explain to your boss you need to leave in an emergency.

When you get the dreaded emergency call or text, try to stay calm so you can make a plan. Let your boss know as soon as you know you’ll need to leave. For most office workers, this is not an issue if it's on occasion. Most managers support their teams and will help an employee figure out a plan to get out of the office to focus on the emergency matter at hand as quickly as possible. If you have a laptop and can grab it before leaving the office so you can get back online once the emergency has passed, try to do so. If you can, put up an out of office auto-response to emails letting people know who to contact in your absence.

If you work in manufacturing, medicine or even hospitality, leaving with a moment’s notice can be trickier. If your leaving impacts the quality of a product being made or the health or safety of others, it may take a bit of coordination to get you out of your task at hand and find someone with the skills and ability to step in. 

If you have a chronically ill parent, partner or child and you qualify for it, you may wish to discuss intermittent FMLA with your boss. This will provide job-protected leave while you are taking care of your loved one. You can use it as you need to instead of taking leave for weeks on end. Once you've filed for it, talk with your boss about how you'll communicate if you can’t come to work or suddenly need to leave.